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Ask UfYH: Married to the Slob

Q: Any advice on how I can train my husband to be less of a slob?He works long days and is wiped when he gets home. (Aren’t we all. But really, 12-14 hour days.) As soon as he walks in the back door, he starts shedding clothes, which isn’t nearly as sexy as it sounds. He leaves his shoes somewhere between the door and the dining room, his smelly-ass socks on the living room rug, the tie tossed on the kitchen counter, and his coat thrown onto the dining room table, before he can plop dramatically on the couch while munching on a snack — even though the living room rug is beige and white and we’re supposed to have a no-food-on-the-couch rule to avoid under-cushion crumbs and inevitable spills (did I mention he’s clumsy?)

IF the clothes make it up the stairs on a good day, they’re invariably in a pile next to the bed rather than in the conveniently divided/labeled laundry baskets TWO FEET AWAY. He wipes the bathroom counter about once every three months and I’m lucky if he pulls his hair out of the drain after a shower. He acts like doing the dishes after I cook dinner is bj-worthy material (and half the time he doesn’t even wipe down the counter).

Please do not get me started on the taking out the trash situation. The dumpster is perhaps 20 feet from the back gate, yet he thinks it’s cool to let the bags pile up on the patio. I am too short to easily hoist the dumpster lid, so he is supposed to deal with the trash. Sometimes the stray cats tear into the bags for some tasty snacks. Sigh.

FWIW: I work full-time and am in grad school. In addition to keeping the house not-falling-apart, I do most of the cooking and grocery shopping, 95% of the yard/patio work and I’m unsuccessfully trying to teach the cat to work the steam mop. Will keep you posted.

THINGS I HAVE TRIED: Talking. Explaining. Making checklists. Throwing a shitfit. Giving up and not cleaning anything. Dumping all of his crap in his office (it hasn’t moved). Not caring about the mess (ugh, that failed.) Constructing a legit mountain of stack-the-trash on the back patio. The silent treatment. Lots of loud sighs.

RESULTS: He vacillates between a few options. Occasionally remorseful, cleans up his shit for the next two days, then falls back into old habits. Claims he has no idea that I clean so much (really). Usually joking, in a he-thinks-it’s-funny-but-I-ain’t-laughing kinda way, “Ha ha yes the coat does TOO go on the dining room table!” Remarks, “But I just cleaned that (two weeks ago), why do I have to do it again?” OR — overly sensitive, acting like I called him a smelly horrible person because I explained the dirty dress socks (polyester!) on the couch STINK AND WOULD HE PUT THEM AWAY.

Please help. I feel like I need supernanny, grown-up edition. And also a drink.

BTW, I love UfYH, but I felt like she might need the full team on this one.

(PoM here) A: I see a lot in your question to unpack. First, you’re extremely resentful, which is certainly understandable when you feel like you’re pulling far more than your fair share of the work around the house. You’re frustrated and angry and fed up. Again, all understandable. I see a rundown of your husband’s flaws. I see you getting more and more annoyed and angry. I see you feeling like your husband is acting like a child, and you feeling like you need to treat him like one.

We’ll start with this: I believe that housework is the responsibility of everyone who lives in that house. I don’t buy the gender role BS. And I also believe that in any living situation of two or more people, one is always more invested in the housekeeping than the other(s), and that person is almost always angry about it. And I also believe that the people who are less invested in the housework aren’t actively trying to sabotage the efforts of the person who is doing the work; it’s just that they either don’t care or don’t think about it. And how do you make someone care?

Short answer? You really can’t. You can, however, employ a few things to bring them around to at least helping out. Do you feel like you shouldn’t have to do that and that it shouldn’t be your responsibility? Absolutely, and you’re right to feel that way, but you have years of evidence that it is, in fact, necessary if you want him to help clean up. I’m looking at your list of things you tried, and I see three useful tools (talking, explaining, and making checklists), and seven passive-aggressive or aggressive-aggressive behaviors. The funny thing about human nature is that passive-aggressive behavior never works. It just doesn’t. It’s sometimes satisfying for the person doing it, but the person who’s receiving it will generally ignore it or push back against it out of spite and feeling insulted.

In my opinion, you primarily just need one tool: talking. One tool broken down into a series of different things, sure, but really, all you need are your words. Sit down with him and have a straightforward conversation about the state of your home. Resist the urge to be spiteful or to snipe. Act as though this were the first time you were discussing this. Make it a conversation, not a lecture. He may give you some indication as to why he isn’t helping out. If there’s something you need him to do and he’s not doing it, ask him. Ask him without resentment or sarcastic commentary. Ask him in the way that you’d want someone to ask you. If he doesn’t do it, ask again. Feels like nagging? “Nagging” is an obnoxious social construct designed to make people (women) feel bad for asking for things. Fuck that. Give a timeline. Ask, “Can you please take out the trash sometime before bed tonight?” Ask him if it would it be easier for if there were a hamper closer to the back door. If not, ask him to put his clothes in the hamper instead of doing it yourself, full of resentment and anger.

You indicate that he’s capable of changing for a few days and then it’s back to old habits. Habits take time to form. And in that time, you’ll probably have to keep talking. Keep asking. I can feel you bristling at this from here. It shouldn’t be your job. Why should you have to act like his parent? Well, given what you’ve written, you’re already reacting as though he were a naughty child because you’re angry and frustrated. The thing about children is that they need to be taught how to do things. Yes, it’s obnoxious and annoying that it’s your responsibility, but you’re the one who’s invested, and he’s the one who’s not performing to expectations.

Note in all of this, I never say, “Pick up after him,” or “Be his maid.” That’s not where we’re going, because habits will never change if someone else is doing all of the work. The other important thing to remember is that as soon as you get passive-aggressive or angry, the whole process will be set back. Unfair? Yup. You need to be the bigger person, and that sucks. Marriage takes a lot of work, and a lot of teamwork. If you love and like each other, you’ll each be willing to put work into fixing the problem. If you resent one another to the point where you start disliking each other, well, that’s another story. Part of being married or cohabiting with a romantic partner is that, in addition to all of the other parts of your relationship, you’re also roommates, and that brings a whole other set of issues into the situation. But unlike roommates, you have the foundation of loving each other and being able to communicate on a more productive level to get past the resentment and anger about the housekeeping.

Opening the question up to the editorial panel:

Hillary: You can’t make him care about the mess. I know this because I’m someone who doesn’t care about the mess and leaves socks all over the damn place and it doesn’t bug me at all. What you can hopefully do is make him care about YOU. Explain that the state of the house has become a source of major stress for you, and that while you understand that it doesn’t bug him, he needs to understand that it bugs YOU and that his refusal to do even the bare minimum makes it feel like he doesn’t care that he’s making your life harder. It’s not really about the mess at this point so much as it’s about the disrespect that he won’t do his part to make your life easier. Hopefully he’ll realize that picking up his fucking socks is easier than pissing you off on a daily basis and having to get lectured.

Slay Belle: I have to concur here — you can’t make someone care about the mess. I’m not a particularly tidy person, something that bugs my husband to no end. I’ve come to appreciate his viewpoint to some degree — UfYH will be pleased to know I make my bed every day and do the dishes (he cooks). But I’ll never be a “tidy” person.

So the answer has to be getting him to react to something he does care about — namely you, your happiness, and your well being. You’re not his maid. You’re his partner, and he’s stressing you the fuck out by leaving his shit everywhere. You should tell him that in those terms. This isn’t just about the house, it’s about the respect and care he’s showing to his partner.

And as the messy person, I’d also say you have to decide what fights you’re willing to give up on. Can you live with the trash being taken to the dumpster four days of the week instead of every? Or letting him have his couch chips? My husband hates the way I put pots and pans away, but he just has to deal with it if he wants me to put the pots and pans away. And I like to do the dishes in the morning as part of my routine rather than at night, when I have to work. You might have to nudge the mountain a little closer to him if he’s willing to start walking towards it, you know?

Sally Lawton: I echo everything Slay and Hillary have said here. I am usually the tidier person in the relationship, so I totally relate to the writer of this question. One thing I would add is to cultivate compassion rather than tolerance. To tolerate means you let things happen even though they are making your life more difficult. The fact is, you don’t like a mess. And tolerating his messy habit isn’t doing you any favors. The alternative is compassion. He has never been trained to be a tidy person (you were). He doesn’t get that things need to be cleaned on a regular rotation. It’s just not in his vocabulary. And he’s dumping his clothes on the ground because he’s tired and the last thing he wants to do is put them away at the end of a long day. I’m sure that’s something you can have compassion for. So with compassion, work with him to come up with strategies that work with his limited cleaning vocabulary while also not tolerating his plainly disrespectful actions toward your need for clean. Perhaps you put a hamper by the door so he can just disrobe as he comes in, provided he agrees to put the clothes away when the hamper becomes full. Is there a chore he can get behind? He probably hates all chores, but he may prefer some to others. If he hates laundry but doesn’t mind mopping, you do the laundry, he does the mopping (on a regular rotation). Remember, he never learned the skills. Don’t tolerate his messiness, but have compassion for the fact that he just doesn’t have your cleanliness tools.

I would also add to say thank you in some way when he does something right. While doing the dishes is not BJ-worthy (why do men do this?) it is something that is new to him. Put it this way: If you’re learning a math problem and aren’t that great at math, when you figure it out, you feel like you deserve ALL the gold stars. And an A+. But the person sitting next to you for whom math comes easily may very well look at you and think they deserve the A+, you deserve the B. If you don’t get the gold star, you may get discouraged and think, well, I’m just not good at math so I’ll go be the English major I always thought I’d be. He may be feeling a bit like this. If he does the dishes, that IS probably a big deal to him, even if it’s just everyday stuff to you. I’m not saying to give him a BJ, but a simple thank-you (genuine, not passive-agressive) and a hug or a kiss or even a little Post-it on the bathroom mirror can go a long way. The funny thing is, you both probably aren’t feeling appreciated in this situation. You don’t feel appreciated because you are doing all the work with little help and acknowledgement that it is a lot of work and he’s not feeling appreciated because what little work he does do is probably (and here I’m making a leap) always considered not enough (even though for him it’s really awesome that he decided to put away that sock that one time). Definitely do the talking and the compromise, but when he does do something you want him to do, say thank you, lovingly and with genuine appreciation. I think that might help both of you.

Liza: Spray bottle.

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11 replies on “Ask UfYH: Married to the Slob”

Even though your husband not realize it, continually not helping a partner clean up around the house or making a mess after a partner is cleaning up can be considered a form of abuse. It seems quite unintentional on his part, and much of it seems to be that you are both going to fall into traditional gender roles. If the thinks about it like this, his habits may change.,

Reading posts like this are depressing, eh?

In my house, we:
– take it in turns. If I did the washing up last time, he does it this time. Sometimes it’s there for a day longer than it should be, and then I say “Hey, can you do the washing up some time this evening?” and I then pleasantly ignore any moaning that ensues.
– ask. Sometimes repeatedly (see above) .
-ignore complaints (see above).
– try to be as neutral about it as possible.
– sometimes suck it up. E.g.: he rarely puts the washed dishes away. He doesn’t care about it; I do; it takes me <5 minutes; so I do it.

I also read this post recently and appreciated it. Maybe your husband could read it:

“the statistical evidence is out there and it is stark: blokes, many of you who have a female partner are exploiting her. This applies to female academics just as much to other professions. Every hour that she spends mopping floors or cleaning toilets is an hour that she could have spent writing a paper – and the survey data suggest that if men did their fair share, she’d have an extra 3 to 4 hours per week. These effects are small but cumulative. By not doing your fair share, you are adding to the pressures that lead her to be less successful in, and ultimately to quit, academia. You might not like cleaning, but believe me, neither does she. She just does it because someone has to and it’s often easier to get on and do it than to nag a reluctant partner.”

Yeah, asking ad infinitum has been the best way to get my fiance to begin to see and start to do something about the mess. I tend to think it’s not nagging if I ask once with a deadline and then refrain from asking again until the deadline has passed without the task being done (eg. Can you empty the dishwasher while I’m at the store or Can you take out the trash before you go to bed tonight?).

I’ve also become rather fond of the would you rather? game When we finish dinner I give him a choice of doing the dishes or walking the dog. If we’re expecting company I ask him to either vacuum the living room or sweep the entry way while I do the other. If we’re both working at the same time to clean up, there’s a lot less resentment on both sides. And this eventually led to him pitching in without me having to say anything when he notices that I’m tidying up. Or at least asking what he can do to help.

Husband and I have come to a Grand Bargain-at least in my head we have. I’m fairly sure that he’s completely unaware of said bargain, but it prevents him from having a pile of trash all over his desk (my passive-aggressive response to him not taking out the trash). Basically, I will not get upset about having to ask/remind him to take out the trash, brush the dogs teeth, whatever, and he will not get pissy at me for gently reminding him to do his damn job because, seriously, he throws stuff away, how the hell does he not notice that the trash is overflowing!?!?!?

But, um, I leave that last part out, it’s unproductive and I can’t really make him notice the trash more, and I have much more important battles to pick-like he should always check and see if the dog has stepped in poop.

We recently both signed up for HabitRPG. I told him what to add on his (checking if the dishwasher needs to be loaded, vacuuming, mopping), he told me what to add to what I already had on mine (making sure to turn off the lights when I leave a room, sleeping my computer when I’m not using it).

His rewards (you buy them with gold you earn) are various video games that I will play with him for certain amounts of time – ranging from the inexpensive “I’m vaguely interested in this” game to the super expensive “I don wanna” game.

It’s working really, really well so far. He doesn’t like losing any points.
I’ve died twice, but I’ve noticed that I’m getting better about stuff.

my husband and i are both “outwardly” motivated people, so when it comes to cleaning (or going to the gym, or going out to see friends, or anything really) i end up having to be the motivator for the both of us. when i first moved in with him i don’t think he had cleaned the shower/tub in YEARS. eventually the mess around the house will get to be too much (even for me, a relatively messy person) and i start losing my shit completely. i turn into the anxious cleaning tornado and this usually prompts him into action as well.

but LW, i totally feel you. my husband can ignore a piece of trash on the floor essentially FOREVER.

The idea about moving the laundry basket to wherever he usually leaves his clothes in a pile is a really good one.

I don’t really get the psychology here but my beloved will dutifully put his clothes in the laundry basket if it is in the middle of the bedroom floor. When I moved the basket just outside the door, he just left his clothes in a pile on the floor where the basket used to be. I don’t get it, but moving the basket to where the clothes get dumped does work.

Liza, you speak to me.

No on a bit more serious note, this sounds familiar, although it’s a lot more contained in our household. And yes, I do the “Will you please do [x] for me when you have the time somewhere today?” option, because it helps it both. Me not to get frustrated about the dishes not disappearing/the floor not being hoovered, him because he feels bad if I too obviously (and sometimes passive-aggressively) clean up around him.

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